The History of Philately

May 6, 1840 was an important date in English history. Postage rates were reduced to one penny throughout Great Britain, and pre-payment of mail became compulsory. Also, the first postage stamp was issued. The stamp, what we collectors seek after and fight for, was actually not Rowland Hill’s great innovation. In an age before computers, the maze of rates based on distance traveled, number of pages in the letter, or whether prepaid or collect added a large layer of bureaucracy and accounting that made mail carriage expensive. Hill saw too that lower rates would add to volume and thus to profits because of a relatively fixed overhead structure. He was right and to effect accounting and facilitate postal service a stamp was issued to be applied on letters and cancelled when used.

Part because of their intrinsic appeal, part because of the beneficient change that they represented, stamps were instantly popular. Saving them, usually by peeling them with a knife off the envelope, became fashionable, especially in the 1850’s as more and more countries were issuing more and more stamps. Most popular in France, early collecting was called “timbremania” after the French word “timbre” for stamp. Not dignified enough, Georges Herpin invented the word philately using the Greek word meaning something like “the love of prepayment or tax”. Timbremania was probably later.

By the 1870’s, just thirty years after the first stamps had been issued, philately was a flourishing hobby. There were stamp catalogs (Gibbons in Great Britain, Scott in the United States as well as a few others) and numerous stamp societies and philatelic magazines. About this time, the complexion of the hobby began to change. Previously, philately had been a drawing room diversion, engaged in idley or thoughtlessly like the young lady who advertised in the Times of London in 1841 that she wished people to send her their used Penny Blacks as she wished to paper her dressing room with them (a modest 5 foot X 8 foot dressing room would have required 1/2 million stamps- $75 million catalog value at today’s level). Presumably the bedroom would have had to be done in Penny Reds today.

Soon study of stamps not only became fashionable it became the only ticket to admission to the august collecting societies such as the London (now Royal) Philatelic Society, and the American Philatelic Society (founded 1886). Stamp printing methods were investigated, plating studies done and the rudiments of postal history study was developed. Contacts between collectors in different places was expanded so that collectors now could be apprised of new issues rate changes and stamps to be withdrawn. Mint stamp collecting became popular for the first time.

The period 1875-1916 was the golden age in the development of philately. Great collections, probably the greatest, were formed by men like Ferrary, and Tapling (now on irregular view at the British Museum). A collector then could collect the world since prices and the quantity of different issues had not yet made that impossible. And even when a collector did specialize, he often amassed huge quantities of a given stamp, for varieties and study.

World War I marked a changing point in philatelic history. Easy intercourse between nations was disrupted, destruction of life was huge (mostly men, the next generation of collectors). This change was perhaps symbolized by the selling in the early 1920’s of Ferrary’s collection, the world’s greatest, by the French government to pay war reparations. The 1920’s were a fractious, busy time and stamp collecting began to show a change that is still with us today.

As postal administration became more attuned to the revenue that could be gleaned from stamp collectors, we saw the beginnings of continuing commemorative issues, mainly issued for collectors’ albums. Many collectors’ appetites could be sated by the stream of new issues and so, unlike the earlier period where all collectors had to go back and collect earlier issues or there would be nothing to collect, now a two tiered collecting state was established with “serious” philatelists who collected earlier as well as modern stamps and more casual post office collectors.

The depression lowered stamp prices, of course, but not nearly as much as what happened to many other collectibles and nothing like the 85% reduction that hit the Dow Jones average. Stamp collecting cound be and still can be an inexpensive avocation and even in hard times people have a few pennies for diversion. World War II left most Europeans too destitute and most Americans too busy to be astute collectors, and few changes occured during this period.

The post-war philatelic era, our era, has been marked by two significant factors. First, cover collecting and arcane subspecialties have become ever more popular as stamp price inflation and tens of thousands of new issues per year make completion impossible. And second, for the first time in philatelic history we have government postal agencies actively encouraging people to collect stamps. Previously, solicitation for new collectors was done privately by word of mouth or commercially such as “The Captain Tim Stamp Club” by H.E. Harris. Now the USPS, through its Benjamin Franklin stamp clubs, is exposing millions of youngsters to philately. What this will produce, whether it will be a boon or a bane, is still too soon to say. In any event, the history of philately is long and like a nation or a family, it evolves. What it will be tomorrow, no one can say, but it has remained for over 125 years a vibrant active hobby, truly “The Hobby of Kings.”

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